In Depth Review of “Undeniable” By Molecular Biologist Douglas Axe

IMG_1967 *Note: This review is extremely long, much longer than I intended for it to be. It consists of a chapter by chapter summary and analysis, as well as preliminary and concluding thoughts.  I’ve provided headings before each section and chapter to make navigating easierWhile I apologize for the inconvenience of the length, I felt it was needed for the full, in depth treatment.

Several weeks ago, a highly anticipated book from molecular biologist Douglas Axe arguing for a new approach concerning the origin of life was released. The title of the book is Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed and it is currently a #1 Bestseller on Amazon under the category of “Organic Evolution.”

As the title pretty obviously implies, the book and its author are advocates of the position that has come to be known as “intelligent design,” which broadly argues that life is the result of purposeful design, as opposed to the random/accidental/unguided chance of blind natural forces, which the theory of biological evolution is commonly understood to entail or at least imply.

A Few Preliminary Thoughts

Before I start my analysis of the book, a few important points are necessary to make. First, the “evolution” debate is and has been an extremely controversial topic amongst scientists, philosophers, theologians, and laypeople alike, not just recently but really ever since Darwin first published his famous On the Origins of Species. The discussion concerning the relevant issues here is real and significant, but I have found that much of the conversation has been inordinately colored and abused by media, politics, and popular level works that lack depth and clarity. Furthermore, the conversation on both sides can often be fueled by emotionalism, exaggeration, and unchecked bias. Even just mentioning “evolution” or “creationism” can be enough to rouse tension and anger. Some people prefer to shy away from this topic altogether. For others, there’s no need to have a conversation at all: the case is closed, biological evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a proven scientific fact, and that’s all there is to it.

Which is why I am taking extreme caution in writing this. Let me be clear from the outset: I have no “beef” or “side” in this fight, at least not as of now.  While appeals to authority are an informal logical fallacy, it cannot be overstated that the vast, overwhelming majority of biologists support/generally agree with the common model of Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection. Again, while that fact alone is not a sufficient reason to believe Darwinian evolution is true, it does provide strong indication that the evidence likely points in that direction, and we ought to have very, very good overriding reasons for disagreeing with almost an entire field of scientific inquiry. However, on the opposite side, those who are completely committed to the evolutionary paradigm should be open to challenging models/views. After all, as John Stuart Mill remarked, opposing ideas, when really and honestly engaged, either lead us further to the truth, or help strengthen our already held beliefs. If Darwinian evolution is the correct model, advocates of it should have nothing to fear from challengers. And vise versa.

The most common incentive for disbelieving the biological models of Darwinian evolution seem to be theological, for obvious reasons. It would take a much longer post to go into the theological aspects of the debate, but I’ll suffice to say this: I do not think that the central theological doctrines of Christianity are necessarily or absolutely incompatible with Darwinian evolution. But again, that’s a totally separate topic that perhaps will be examined in a future post (for those interested, some possible articles related to this can be found here and here).

As such, since I have not as of yet done the adequate scientific research to come to an informed decision, I consider myself an “agnostic” related to evolutionary theories. This current book, Undeniable by Douglas Axe, is one of the only full books I’ve read on the subject. Hopefully, reading and engaging with this book and the ideas therein will foster a much more extended search/conversation for me and others. I will try to be as fair and honest in my analysis as possible.

Finally, a quick note about the philosophical side. As many know, I write mainly from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view. Other prominent philosophers in this tradition have been very adamantly critical of intelligent design. I will be writing in the future about this aspect of the debate, but will for the most part be leaving it out of the present review.

So here it goes.

Review

First, a bit about the author. Douglas Axe, Ph.D. is a molecular biologist who completed undergraduate studies at U. C. Berkeley. He also:

“held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre, and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Protein Engineering under the supervision of Alan Fersht of the University of Cambridge. He currently research examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems” [1].

Furthermore,

“His work and ideas have been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer and Life’s Solutions by Simon Conway Morris” [2].

I list this impressive resume just to make something clear from the start: this is no Ken Ham. Axe is a practicing molecular biologist with knowledge and experience in what is one of the most relevant fields to the question of biological evolution. One of the research centers at which he worked at Cambridge University, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, is the same research center at which worked the celebrated James Watson and Francis Crick, the discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA, as well as many other significant nobel prize winning scientists.

Again, this isn’t meant to be an appeal to authority. After all, Axe is vastly outnumbered by pretty much the entire field of molecular biology and biology in general when it comes to his view. This is just a preemptive measure to counteract the inevitable assertion that any proponent of anti-evolutionary theories must be ignorant or not a “real” scientist. That is clearly not the case here.

In fact, that very issue comprises a prominent theme throughout the book. For anyone daring enough to go up against an entire field of scientific inquiry, it is not enough merely to ask whether the dominant position in that field is right or wrong. One also must ask why is it the dominant position in the first place? Axe does ask this question, and his answer will be examined below.

But before that, a little intro to the book itself. Undeniable is written as a popular level argument against Darwinian evolution and in support of the broad “Intelligent Design” movement, meant to be easily accessible to laypeople and the scientifically uninitiated (such as myself). Like I said, this is the first full book I’ve read in the area, so its accessibility was beneficial to me. But, as with any book covering technical material that’s aimed at the general population, it can be both a strength and a major weakness. Axe has an interesting way of approaching this dilemma that actually becomes central to his overall argument: he advocates what he calls “common science,” which is meant to be open to and engaging with everyone, not just professional scientists. I found his defense of common science, which shall be further explained below, unique and thought provoking.

Axe’s main argument has to do with something he calls our “design intuition.” This is related to his conception of common science, and is probably the most dangerous risk he takes in an already dangerously risky undertaking (again, going up against the overwhelmingly dominant position in any scientific field is always risky, especially one with so many controversies and implications surrounding it). It’s risky because he basically builds his entire argument around a single “intuition,” and if he fails to adequately defend this, his critics might well be justified in labelling his position as “anti-scientific.”

But here is where I think a major strength of the book lies: blending the “common science” with the technical science. As I’ll extrapolate upon below, I think the book could have used more of the technical science; but where it is used, it’s incorporated into and used as a defense of the common science very well. This method makes the technical science much easier to understand, although it sometimes might approach the risk of oversimplification.

Let’s get into the details of the argument itself:

Chapter 1: The Big Question

The first chapter acts as a bird’s-eye-view layout of the whole book; as such, I’m going to take some time to go into it. Axe opens with an anecdote in narrative form that simultaneously introduces the reader to both the author and the subject material. The anecdote is of an “awkward run in” with an old colleague from Cambridge: Sir Alan Ferhst, who directed some of the research centers at which Axe worked previously. Axe uses the awkwardness of the encounter to introduce an important theme: the controversy of the evolution debate. As Axe will reveal later in the book, this same Sir Alan Ferhst would be the one to ultimately dismiss him from his job at the research center due to his involvement with intelligent design work and the increasing public tension of the debate escalated largely by the media. Throughout the book, Axe weaves his own story into the presentation of his argument. This is a great asset, in my opinion, as it personalizes the science, makes it relevant, and provides a context for understanding where the author is coming from. It also means that the book doesn’t read at all like a science textbook, but more like a conversation, an ongoing discussion. It also reveals the need for an important balance: while there is a very prevalent danger in this subject and others like it to be driven by emotionalism and bias, there is also at times the tendency in academic discourse to completely depersonalize the arguments. The arguments themselves should rely on the objective facts, of course; but I believe Axe is right to emphasize that our discussion of these arguments should also concern their relevance/importance to our own lives. Axe incorporates this aspect extremely well throughout the book.

Axe then uses the anecdote of the “awkward encounter” to discuss the “awkwardness” of evolution and subtly reveal his conception of the “design intuition.” According to him, there’s an apparent tension between our own understanding of ourselves and the implications of Darwinian evolution. He writes:

“Of all the controversial ideas to come from modern science, none has brought more awkwardness than Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection…The biggest question on everyone’s minds has never been the question of survival but rather the question of origin–our origin in particular. How did we get here? Even if you think natural selection is the answer, you have to admit to a degree of internal conflict over the matter” [3].

That “internal conflict” involves our common notion as humans that our lives should have meaning and purpose, and the conflicting conclusion of Darwinian evolution that our existence is due to brute random chance, with no purpose, design, or intended meaning at all. Now before you scoff, Axe makes fully clear that this is a subjective feeling that humans have, and as such can’t be used as a final arbiter of the facts. What Axe is doing here is to give a background for the reason evolution has been surrounded by such controversy, particularly for religious people.

Axe then attempts to tackle the question of why Darwinian evolution is the dominant theory in biological sciences. Here, and elsewhere throughout the book, he recounts examples of how evolution has become so totally entrenched in the field that even to hint at something else can spell disaster for a scientist’s career. Now, while it is obviously not a bad thing for an idea to become overwhelmingly dominant in a field if it is true, the only way to know if it’s true is to be open and willing to engage challenges and opposing positions. There is, however, very real evidence that the evolutionary position has not been open in this way; in fact, some liken it to a peer pressuring bully that totally shuts down any and all opposition. For more on this, see Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed about the academic discrimination of intelligent design proponents.

Now here, of course, some readers might be ready to shout in frustration. “But wait!” you might say, “intelligent design isn’t science! It’s religious doctrine masquerading as pseudo-science!” And, “intelligent design work shouldn’t be accepted or supported by academic institutions. The reason evolution is so accepted is because it’s a scientific fact supported by the massive weight of evidence.” Axe deals with the first objection in the next chapter. As for the latter, Axe would disagree. He describes how when Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, his theory was widely rejected by scientists. But by the time he published the sixth edition of the book, “to Darwin’s own great surprise, this near total rejection of his theory turned to near total acceptance” [4]. How did this happen? Axe suggests that it was not because of any new scientific discoveries or even purely scientific reasons at all which shifted the tide of opinion; rather, Axe argues that it had much more to do with the social and academic climate:

“Darwin reveals here that peer pressure is a part of science, happening behind the scenes as the various scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favor have been more like a change of power than a change of minds–a sudden reversal of the stream’s flow?” [5].

What implications does this “scientific peer pressure” have? Axe suggests that it reveals the fundamentally human nature of all scientific inquiry, that as much as we might not like to admit it, scientists are “influenced as much by human factors as by data” [6]. While his point is quite interesting and significant, it’s pretty clear what his motives in recounting the Darwin narrative are. He’s pretty much saying, “Hey, if Darwin was once thought of as a scientific outcast and his theory was pretty much universally rejected by scientists, then maybe that will be the case for intelligent design as well!” Which may or may not be the case. But this still doesn’t explain why the dominant position shifted from opposed to Darwin’s theory to acceptance of it. If peer pressure really did/does control the stream, how did it shift so monumentally in such short amount of time? The answer is lacking, and so we’re left to wonder how he proposes actually shifting the stream towards intelligent design now.

Which is not to say I entirely disagree with him; I think that there clearly is a dominant paradigm in “power” in academia that can at times very much act more like a political party on a throne than an actually justified intellectual viewpoint. Axe even admits that more broadly, outside of just the biological sciences, modern academia is very much ruled by a materialistic worldview:

“the flag that has flown for many generations over the academy of higher education is that of a broad school of thought known as materialism…[which is] the view that matter–the stuff of physics–underlies everything real…atheists tend to subscribe to the materialist view of reality, believing God to be a product of the human imagination, which they believe to be a product of material evolution” [7].

He then goes on to level an overly simplistic accusation of scientism against atheists in general. While a careful and in depth discussion of scientism would certainly have been extremely valuable and useful to the argument and overall book, this wasn’t offered here at all, which is unfortunate. Instead Axe simply quotes atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s now infamous quote in which he admits wanting atheism to be true and theism to be false as a supposed example of atheists being just as, if not more so, influenced by “wishful thinking” in belief formation. While I don’t think Axe’s point is unimportant, his presentation of it is just a little too quick and easy for comfort. I found that throughout the book there was an occasional tendency towards such overgeneralization and oversimplification, which can be very dangerous and even detrimental. Usually, however, Axe’s tendency towards simplification didn’t have too much affect on his central arguments, but rather on surrounding contexts such as the present issue of worldviews in academic inquiry.

Axe closes out the chapter by reemphasizing what he calls “The Big Question.” He says inspiringly:

“that one big question of our origin unites us–not because we agree on the answer but because we should all agree on the importance of finding the answer. Throughout history, it has been the foremost question of people searching for understanding…To what or to whom do we owe our existence?” [8].

While some thinkers might shy away from this existential aspect of science and all academic inquiry, I found myself pretty much in wholehearted agreement with his insistence on the importance of seeking the answers to such questions.

Chapter 2: The Conflict Within

Chapter 2 introduces us to the argument itself. Axe begins with another personal anecdote recounting an “aha” moment he had about the complexity of cellular function, which he likens to feedback loops in engineering. The “conflict within,” as he calls it, is that life appears so highly active and complex, along the same lines as human inventions in engineering, and yet it is attributed to accident rather than deliberate design. He admits that “the weight of scientific authority” with a “mountain of books and technical papers” which amount to a “huge body of literature” are all completely and entirely opposed to his ideas, and yet he calls this merely due to “authority” rather than evidence, and claims that he has yet to see any sufficiently persuasive evidence that takes Darwin-Doubters seriously [9]. Very lofty and risky claims.

He attributes his doubts/internal conflict to an “intuition that life can’t be an accident” [10]. Why is there this intuition? To explain, he introduces a thought experiment that he will return to frequently throughout the book: Oracle soup. It goes like this:

  1. Fill a large pot with oracle soup
  2. Cover the pot, and bring the soup to a boil
  3. Remove the pot from the heat, and let the soup cool.
  4. Lift the lid to reveal complete instructions for building something new and useful, worthy of a patent–all spelled out in pasta letters
  5. Repeat from step 2 as often as desired [11].

Obviously, none of us believe that this is a real possibility. Of course letters in soup don’t randomly form instructions. And that’s Axe’s point:

“how can the evolutionary explanation of life not provoke that same skepticism? According to Darwin, each form of life owes its existence to a long succession of accidents…life, according to Darwin’s speculation, originally came from soup. Not from oracle soup but from primordial soup” [12].

Axe grants however that this is a little simplistic, that there are obvious differences between instructions from letter soup and living organisms. His point, however, is to emphasize this natural intuition that we have in response to such tales. Here Axe admits that intuitions can be slippery, but that we don’t have to know how intuitions work to be able to prove if they’re sound or not, which I thought was a bit questionable and, again, overly simplistic. If you’re going to base an entire argument off of intuition, you need to spend some time establishing what an intuition actually is, and how it works. Nevertheless, he defines what he calls “The Universal Design Intuition” as such:

“Tasks that we would normally need knowledge to accomplish can be accomplished only by someone who has that knowledge…In other words, whenever we think we would be unable to achieve a particular useful result without first learning how, we judge that result to be unattainable by accident” [13].

He goes on to say that

“I intend to show that the universal design tuition is reliable when properly used and, moreover, that it provides a solid refutation of Darwin’s explanation for life” [14].

In all honesty, I think his formulation of this intuition, even if the intuition turns out to successfully achieve what he intends it to, could use some refinement. He gives examples such as buttoning a shirt, wrapping a present, and making an omelet; activities which require knowledge to complete. But again, this seems just too simplistic. I wonder about other activities such as birds building nests or bees gathering pollen and creating honey–activities which would seem to be on the same level as buttoning a shirt and yet which are not committed by beings with personhood or conscious “knowledge.” Does intrinsic, natural instinct count as knowledge? Can non personal beings “design” something? Much more extrapolation is needed on this. Axe does say that “everyday experience consistently shows us that even simple tasks like these never accomplish themselves” [15], so maybe his point is not that conscious knowledge is required, but rather just higher intention than is exhibited by pure natural/physical laws and forces alone.

He closes the chapter with a “complexity scale.” Everyday tasks like making the bed is at the low end of the complexity scale, impressive achievements such as human technological inventions are at the high end; and “at the highest reaches of the complexity scale are the true masterpieces” [16] which are biological organisms such as animals. According to the design intuition, highly complex things cannot be the result of accident, but we’re left (in this chapter) without a sufficient defense of this.

Chapter 3: Science In The Real World

Chapter 3 begins with a short discussion of the limited material/literature in the scientific field of critiques of Darwinism, noting the lack of organized gatherings/conventions specifically for this purpose, which “suggested to me [Axe] that the scientific establishment was not at all in favor of it” [17]. Here Axe begins to delve into the real science of it all:

“What I found most intriguing in the small body of technical literature that challenged Darwin’s theory was the improbability of characters becoming arranged into long functional sequences. This is exactly what made us so suspicious of oracle soup…The same intuition–the design intuition–applies to functional sequences built from any kind of character set, from the zeros and ones of computer code to the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. Fascinatingly, the molecular underpinnings of life provide two more prime examples: gene sequences and protein sequences” [18].

What follows is a discussion of proteins, amino acids, and the folding and shapes thereof. The specific shape of a protein is determined by the sequence of amino acids. Cells know which sequence of amino acids to use because of the instructions in genes. The genetic code translates the four characters of DNA sequence into the twenty characters of amino acid sequence. This then raises the question:

How did the various forms of life acquire these necessary genes in the first place? Here our design intuition clashes with the scientific consensus, which attributes genes and proteins and everything else to accidental causes” [19].

Axe then quotes biochemist Michael Denton who argues that “no more than [10^40] possible proteins could have existed on earth since its formation” which “means that, if protein functions reside in sequences any less probable than one in [10^40], it becomes increasingly unlikely that any functional proteins could ever have been discovered by chance on earth” [20].

In other words, only a limited number of proteins can have existed on earth (10^40), but not all of those proteins are functional. If a sequence of amino acids producing a functional protein is more rare than 10^40, then there is reason to doubt whether functional proteins would or could have arisen by chance.

This is actually the main research work that Axe, a molecular biologist, conducted during his time at Cambridge. He wanted to discover whether functional proteins are actually rare. The rest of the chapter briefly describes some of his findings from experiments, but then, however, veers off to another personal anecdote in which a superior dismissed his work and ends with reemphasizing the very human aspects of science. Weaving in and out of the actual science might be a pro or a con: on one hand it prevents the reader from being too heavily bombarded with sheer technical facts; on the other hand it can be distracting. Still, he does offer important insights, and the personal narrative is quite interesting and pertinent to his overall argument. His main point is that the commonplace “utopian view” of science in which science is completely, totally objective without any bias whatsoever, and that scientific inquiry alone is enough to bring us to truth, is false. He writes:

“Many of us have bought into the idea that science, though practiced by humans, has managed to rid itself of human flaws. But if we intend to question everything, perhaps we should begin by questioning whether the human testing of ideas can be so simple, considering how complicated humans are” [21].

Chapter 4: Outside The Box

Chapter 4 picks up on this discussion of the human nature of science. It includes a little description of some actual experiments at the beginning, but most of it consists of narrative and commentary. For example, Axe relates a case in which an egregious error was made in an experiment which resulted in faulty conclusions. He also recounts several incidents in his work and his ultimate dismissal from the research institute, due to his connection to intelligent design research and the growing public controversial interest therein. All of this is quite interesting and adds depth and context to the book. It is well worth the read, despite the fact that it further delays the actual presentation of the book’s argument itself.

The most important part of the chapter is a discussion concerning what the intelligent design movement actually is. A common criticism of, and justification for completely rejecting/ignoring, intelligent design, is that it is merely “religion masquerading as pseudo-science.” It’s often lumped in with “creationism” as one of those abominable, anti-science, fundamentalist groups. Axe disagrees:

“The truth is that ID [intelligent design] and creationism have always differed fundamentally in their methods and starting assumptions. Creationism starts with a commitment to a particular understanding of the biblical text of Genesis and aims to reconcile scientific data with that understanding. ID, on the other hand, starts with a commitment to the essential principles of science and shows how those principles ultimately compel us to attribute life to a purposeful inventor–an intelligent designer. ID authors settle for this vague description not because they want to smuggle God into science but because the jump from “intelligent designer” to “God” requires something beyond the essential principles of science” (emphasis mine) [22].

That last portion is, in my opinion, extremely important to note. Axe is here fully admitting that intelligent design alone cannot take us to any theological doctrine, religious tradition, or even really (he says) to “God” at all. Unfortunately, Axe happens to completely ignore his own claim here later in the book when he arbitrarily states that God is the best or even only explanation. This is a major deficiency which I wish the book had addressed more fully: the relationship between the science of intelligent design and its philosophical interpretations. Still, I agree with his point that intelligent design should not be ridiculed as unscientific religious propaganda as it so often is. It may well be wrong, but, at least from what I’ve encountered, it does indeed seem to have a commitment to actual scientific methodology.

Also in this chapter is an excellent treatment of what Axe considers the “essential principles of science” and how views such as scientism not only don’t fall within these principles, but can actually be harmful to the essential principles themselves. This is much more of the examination of scientism which I was looking for but which was missing from chapter one, although it’s still only a surface level treatment. He defines science as “the application of reason and observation to discover objective truths about the physical world” and lists the essential principles thereof as the facts “that objective truths exist…that some of these truths pertain to the physical world, and that some of those that do can be discovered through human observation and reasoning” [23]. I found these definitions/propositions to be fair and insightful, and although more discussion could have been beneficial, what is present here is, to me, satisfactory.

Axe also admits that all scientists, no matter their position, have agendas, but that “the real problem for science…[is] the institutionalization of agendas,” and that “once an embellished view of science becomes established, active suppression of dissent becomes inevitable” [24].

Finally, Axe argues that evolution can actually be a dangerous and harmful worldview, as, he argues, it teaches that humans are no more than accidental by-products with no purpose or meaning, that we are no more than animals, that morality is impossible on this view, etc. Once again, much more depth is needed here, although I understand the sentiment behind the point he’s trying to make.

Chapter 5: A Dose of Common Science

This chapter picks back up on the experimentation and technicalities left off previously. Remember Michael Denton’s comment about the number and rarity of proteins? Axe’s experiments were aimed at finding just how rare functional proteins actually are, and here’s what he found:

“Denton reckoned that accidental processes would be incapable of finding new functional proteins if their amino-acid sequences were more rare than about one in [10^40]…I was able to put a number on the actual rarity–a startling number. With only one good protein sequence for ever [10^74] bad ones, I had found functional proteins to be roughly 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-fold more rare than Denton’s criterion! Unless this number was overturned somehow, a decisive blow had been dealt to the idea that proteins arose from accidental causes” [25].

My only question here is whether Denton’s number is decisive. Is it pretty well accepted by evolutionary biologists in general? Why or why not? We aren’t told.

The rest of the chapter introduces the previously mentioned idea of “common science.” Axe writes:

“since most people will never master technical arguments, there is a desperate need for a nontechnical argument that stands on its own merits, independent of any technical work…What is needed isn’t a simplified version of a technical argument but a demonstration that the basic argument in its purest form really is simple, not technical” [26].

This to me is an interesting and ambitious, if not a bit idealistic, proposition. He goes on to  state that all humans, from early childhood on, are really scientists. We all observe, reason, and form conclusions/beliefs based upon our experiences/observations.

“We all make mental notes of what we observe. We all use those notes to build conceptual models of how things work. And we all continually refine these models as needed…All of these model-building activities, and many more, use innate mental ability to process data–the information we receive from the world by observing it. Of course, we engage in these activities so naturally we don’t think of them in technical terms. My point is that they really are scientific in nature, whether or not we think of them that way” [27].

Our experience/observations of the world really do create within us foundational beliefs/understandings that are then used to interpret all other experiences/observations. Technical science, according to Axe, is just the highest, most refined reaches of this process; but, he argues, nothing from the height of the process could invalidate any of the foundational beliefs, precisely because they are foundational. Thus technical science can complete and refine our foundational knowledge, but not invalidate or contradict it. This is, of course, meant to support the validity of the design intuition.

Like I’ve said earlier, the notion of commons science is interesting to me. Axe wants the common public to be just as engaged in scientific inquiry as professional scientists. This is, again, a bit idealistic, but not without worth of pursuing, if some practical method for actually implementing it could be found.

Axe ends the chapter by asking an important question: why do we have the design intuition at all? If the design intuition holds, why does it hold? “The question, then, is why are tasks that we would need knowledge to accomplish never accomplished without knowledge?” [28].

Chapter 6: Life Is Good

Chapter 6 is pretty important to the argument as a whole.Axe begins by noting that life at least seems/appears to be purposeful and have intent, that “there is at least a superficial resemblance between certain machines and simple forms of life” [29]. Axe does not define “having intent” as just conscious intent, but rather having features which “add up in a coherent way to a higher level of behavior that we associate with purpose” [30]. Something appears designed if “the whole result takes on a conceptual significance that rises above anything we perceive in the small momentary actions themselves…the actions turn out to be significant because they produce a significant end, and we can’t avoid the conviction that this was the intended end” [31].

Here Axe introduces a few terms. Something is a “whole” if it is complete in itself. Things like spiders and stars are wholes, because if you divide a spider or a star in half, you won’t have just a smaller spider or smaller star. If you divide a cloud, on the other hand, or a rock, you will have just a smaller cloud and smaller rock. There are different types of wholes, however. An atom and a star are both wholes in this sense, but, according to Axe, “neither of these objects manifests intent the way” living things do. Living things, therefore, are “a special kind of whole–the kind that manifests intent by undertaking and completing a project” [32]. Axe labels these kinds of wholes busy wholes:

“A busy whole, then, is an active thing that causes us to perceive intent because it accomplishes a big result by bringing many small things or circumstances together in just the right way. The big result is also a whole, which we will call a whole project” [33].

Axe then asserts that a whole project requires skilled work to be accomplished, skilled work requires discernment or “the ability to distinguish between the right things from the wrong things and the right way from the wrong way”, and “discernment in turn requires knowledge” [34]. And of course, a project that requires knowledge must be directed by a knower. Furthermore, whole projects can be broken down into subprojects which are required to carry out the intended end of the project, and often these subprojects themselves are whole projects.

Next Axe offers a brief critique of the “imperfect design” objection as well as a bit of a subjective observation about the inherent “goodness” of life before getting to what is perhaps the most important piece of actual, scientific evidence in the whole book. I’ll quote extensively from this section because of its significance:

“To explain how natural proteins, with their exquisite functions, could have appeared by accident is a monumental challenge. This challenge can be divided into a more extreme aspect and a less extreme aspect, both of which are proving to be major obstacles for evolutionary theory. The more extreme challenge is to explain how mutations and selection could have produced completely new structural themes for proteins, called folds…The less extreme challenge is to explain how mutations and selection could have produced functional variations on existing fold themes” [35].

He then describes his experimental research on these issues:

“To focus on the less extreme one, biologist Ann Gauger and I chose to work with two strikingly similar yet functionally distinct natural enzymes, which we’ll call enzyme A and enzyme B…Our aim was to determine whether it would be possible for enzyme A to evolve the function of enzyme B within a time frame of a billion years. If natural selection really coaxed sponges into becoming orcas in less time, inventing many new proteins along the way, we figured it should have ample power for this small transformation. But after carefully testing the mutations most likely to cause this functional change, we concluded it probably isn’t feasible by Darwinian evolution” [36].

In response to the question of “whether scientists who accept Darwin’s explanation of life also accept our conclusion that enzyme A can’t evolve to work like enzyme B” he writes:

“You may be surprised to hear that many of them do. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone having challenged that conclusion. How, you may wonder, can anyone believe that natural selection is incapable of such a tiny transformation while maintaining that it accomplished so many gargantuan ones? The current answer from evolutionists is that natural selection is a victim of its own success. That is, natural selection is now thought to have been so effective at tailoring organisms to their environments that it did reach end points–creatures so good at being what they are that they can no longer undergo evolutionary change” [37].

I found this to be an astounding, almost unbelievable claim. I had never heard that that was a common view amongst contemporary evolutionists until I read this. He goes on to say that critics of his work have not denied that current enzymes/proteins resist evolutionary change, but rather that the reason they do so is because evolutionary change in the past has made them so fit as to be “no longer pliable in the hands of natural selection” [38]. He ends the chapter by responding to a few more objections and drawing out some possible implications of his findings.

Chapter 7: Waiting For Wonders

Chapter 7 begins by asking what reason there might be for doubting the design intuition and believing evolution to be true. The answer commonly given is natural selection. Axe then presents us with a thought experiment meant to discover whether this is an adequate answer.

We’re asked to imagine a “noise-seeking robot” that is dropped at any random spot on the entire globe and is supposed to find a football stadium by homing in on sound sources until it finds the right “noise level” of a football stadium. When it’s dropped it measures all the sound signals around it and moves in the direction of the loudest sound, before stopping to measure again and the process repeats. If it’s dropped near a football stadium the journey would be short. But since it’s dropped at a random spot anywhere on earth, there will be an untold number of competing sounds directly in the vicinity of the robot which far override the sounds of the nearest football stadium, which could be thousands of miles. The odds of dropping near a stadium are one in a hundred thousand. Furthermore, the robot will be drawn to the nearest loud sound. The only hope is if accidental events somehow push it slowly, over millions of years, into the sound range of a football stadium. But, Axe observes, if this is what it takes to find the stadium, then success shouldn’t really be attributed to the homing system at all, but rather to the accidental events which just happened to push the robot there.

How does this relate to evolution? Natural selection, says Axe, acts like the homing system. “Just as the robot moves toward the loudest noise as judged from its present location, so natural selection tends to shift the genetic makeup of a species towards the highest fitness as judged from its present member…selection’s homing causes movement through…the genetic space consisting of all possible genome sequences. Each movement in this genetic space consists of a change in the genome sequence that typifies the species, taking many generations to complete” [39].

Axe’s main point here is that natural selection moves a species towards the most fit already existing genome sequence, but “a new functional feature–an invention, produces no fitness signal at all until at least one individual in the species already has that invention–which means natural selection itself can’t invent!” [40].

Now, I may be missing the significance here due to lack of literacy in this area, but I was under the impression that Darwinian evolution already admits this fact; that Darwinian evolution holds that “inventions” arise from random mutation, and that once they exist natural selection moves the species towards this trait. Nevertheless, Axe maintains that:

“the very logic of natural selection assures us that the power of invention resides elsewhere. And because evolutionists have never agreed on what this elsewhere is, the gaping hole that has always existed in the middle of the evolutionary theory is still there” [41].

I suppose that if Axe’s early experimental conclusions are correct, that mutation cannot result in a new protein function, then this point that natural selection cannot invent does gain added importance. But that’s not made especially clear here.

There is however a pretty good treatment of the issue of “stepping stones.” As he said, natural selection only moves a species towards an already existing “fitness signal” within the genome. But a feature that’s currently beneficial to a species may not have long term benefit. In order for many complex features such as hearts, lungs, and eyes to operate, there must be many, many smaller component functions. If “X” is a large function which requires the smaller operations of P and Q and R, and P in turn requires the operations of H, I, J and K, and so on, then it is exceedingly improbable that natural selection could have accomplished this. “X” may overall be a very beneficial feature for a species, but the natural selection would first have to select for all of the smaller features, which, in themselves, might not be beneficial whatsoever at all, and thus natural selection would have no reason to select for them alone. To accomplish all of this would either require “insight,” or else nearly unfathomably improbably accidental causes. Axe writes:

“The lack of any parallel to insight means that any instance of mindless causes doing the work of insight would have to be coincidence…[and] accidental invention would have to leverage repetition to beat the unfavorable odds of extraordinary coincidence. With respect to the invention of living things, then, a commitment to materialism is a commitment to accidental explanation, and a commitment to accidental explanation is a commitment to coincidence, and a commitment to coincidence is a commitment to the power of repetition. These things stand or fall together” [42].

The rest of the chapter consists of the descriptions of three experiments conducted which support the previously mentioned ideas, including an experiment which demonstrated that natural selection tends toward short term advantages rather than long term benefits, which would be what are required for complex functions. Although the technical science can be a bit difficult to fully grasp for lay persons such as myself, they really are vital to the argument, and thus are well placed.

Chapter 8: Lost In Space

Chapter 8 looks at the question of whether inventions could arise by accidental chance, or whether such coincidences would be so astronomically improbable that we ought to consider them impossible.  It begins with a discussion of searches, and what qualifies something as a “blind search” (it lacks insight or foresight). Searches such as evolution, which don’t take place in a physical, geographical location, instead exist in the space of an “abstract set–a group of conceptual possibilities” [43]. For evolution that abstract set would just be all the possible genetic features that could potentially exist.

The chapter uses several insightful thought experiments to illustrate this. Axe asks us to imagine the entire earth as our “search space,” where our target is an indention in a plaque on the ground that lies on the crosshairs of the borders of the states Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. We are then asked to imagine dropping 2,000 pins at random anywhere on earth’s surface. What is the likelihood that one of these pins would land in that exact spot?

Axe uses this thought experiment, and several variations on it, to present several principles of probability that are applicable to evolution, such as the “coverage principle” which states that:

“If a pin is dropped blindly over a search space, the probability of it hitting any target within that space is equal to the fraction of the search space covered by this target” [44].

The next thought experiment uses a nonphysical search space: all possible digital images 300 pixels by 400 pixels in size. The search space consists of every image that could possibly exist within that framework, not just those that actually do exist. This means that the image space is necessarily nonphysical, because it consists of all potential images, not just actual ones. Doing the math, Axe determines that the number of possible images in this space is unimaginably huge: a number which to be written down would require 198 pages to print! “For comparison, a single 80-character line of text would suffice to write out the number of atoms in the universe…So as large and old as our universe is, it envelops nowhere near enough matter and has spanned nowhere near enough time for each of the possibilities in this search space to have been given a physical representation” [45]. Axe refers to numbers such as this, which are so large that they are actually bigger than the number of atoms in the universe, as fantastically big numbers, because they could not possible be actualized in the physical universe. The target in this search is a number which is also fantastically big, comprising 160 pages to be written down. Therefore, the number of images which would have to be actualized to hit this target is a 38 paged number, which is itself fantastically big. As such, “the blind searcher can’t succeed because success would require more images to be checked than any physical process can check” [46].

For comparison, to find that target of images within the search space would be about as probable as dropping the pin and hitting the target location 8,000 times in a row. What does this have to do with evolution? If evolution is a blind search, then its search space and target must be such that the probability of reaching the target is not a fantastically large number, as defined above. If it is, then chance must be ruled out. Axe points out that while such searches are not theoretically impossible, they are physically impossible, because they would require more repetition to produce the necessary coincidences than our universe is physically able to produce [47].

I must admit that this was probably one of my favorite chapters in the book. I loved the concepts involved and I loved following the math. While it didn’t involve technical science, I could see the potential for application. It was very engaging, and the thought experiments were thought provoking as well as entertaining.

Chapter 9: The Art of Making Sense

The chapter begins by summarizing what has gone before, and emphasizing that the conception of evolution as a blind search is not controversial amongst evolutionary biologists. Next Axe discusses what exactly invention is, which was much needed for his argument to be successful. In particular, Axe argues that invention involves three main stages: the mental stage where the conception/big idea is thought out, the methodical stage where all the details for operation are planned out, and the mechanical stage where everything is actually implemented. It’s a “top down” approach that requires, Axe suggests, conscious, deliberate intention.

Axe then uses several more very interesting thought experiments to introduce a new principle he calls “functional coherence.” Without going into too many details of the thought experiment, I’ll provide several quotes:

“[When inventing] we always start by conceiving, and the process of conception always works its way from a whole concept-the big idea-down to the low-level details that must be resolved for this idea to be implemented…The most elegant inventions perform their top-level functions so impressively that the lower-level functions usually go unnoticed…What enables inventions to perform so seamlessly is a property we’ll call functional coherence” [48].

Functional coherence is defined as “the hierarchical arrangement of parts needed for anything to produce a high-level function–each part contributing in a coordinated way to the whole” [49]. A great example of functional coherence is language:

“letters [are] the basic building blocks at the bottom level. These letters are arranged according to the conventions of spelling to form words one level up. To reach the next higher level, words are chosen for the purpose of expressing a thought and arranged according to grammatical conventions of sentence structure in order for that thought to be intelligibly conveyed” [50].

More thought experiments are used surrounding language and functional coherence. For example, it is demonstrated that in order for random keystrokes to produce a half page consisting entirely of actual words, the chance is one in a number which to type out would take 11 whole lines (number of atoms in universe takes 2 lines to type out). Again, fantastically big. The conclusion is thus:

“If the invention of a working X is a whole project requiring extensive new functional coherence, then the invention of X by accidents of any kind is physically impossible. Why? Because for accidental causes to match insight on this scale would be a fantastically improbable coincidence, and our universe simply can’t deliver fantastically improbable coincidence…high level functional coherence can’t be found by any blind search because this would amount to an impossible coincidence. Only insight can hit a target like that, which is no coincidence” [51].

The rest of the chapter is spent extrapolating on this. In short, I found Axe’s arguments fairly persuasive that functional coherence must be the result of insight/knowledge, and is impossible to be produced by accidental causes even with excessive repetition. My only question would be if there are any examples of functional coherence which would not involve a fantastically big number to produce, which then would not require insight. But, as Axe shows later, living organisms are not such an example.

Chapter 10: Coming Alive

Chapter 10 is crucial, as it argues that living organisms are in fact examples of functional coherence by observing one of the most simple living organisms: a cyanobacteria. Axe’s descriptions of the inner details of these living organisms is excellent and passionate. To try to summarize it here would do it a disservice; it really needs to be read as is in the book. To save the space of going into all the detail, I’ll give a few quotes which reveal his overall conclusions, which I again found persuasive:

“the machinery of life displays functional coherence on a scale that’s presently beyond human comprehension” [52].

And

“The cyanobacterium proves itself to be a dizzyingly impressive busy whole by accomplishing a dizzyingly impressive whole project–the manufacture of cyanobacteria–with apparent ease. And if that is so, then [higher level animal life forms] can hardly be anything less. The sense of awe and wonder stirred in us by the humble cyanobacterium is only the beginning” [53].

And

“Somehow, almost unbelievably, living inventions play a key role in building and maintaining themselves–all their parts formed and knitted together in unison within the whole. Life is never anything but whole” [54].

He then shows that proteins, the building blocks of life, are themselves instances of highly complex functional coherence. He refers back to his earlier protein experiment as proof:

“Of the possible genes encoding protein chains 153 amino acids in length, only about one in a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion is expected to encode a chain that folds well enough to perform a biological function” [55].

And that’s just at the level of a single protein, which is the only the building block of living organisms. Randomly finding a functional protein would be the equivalent chance of dropping the noise robot anywhere in the universe and it finding a target the size of a single hydrogen atom.  Because each new category of life requires new genes and proteins, and because “mastery of protein design is only a basic step toward mastering the design of life”, then:

“The fact that mastery of this basic step is completely beyond the reach of blind evolution is therefore evolution’s undoing” [56].

This is, obviously, quite a huge claim. A lot of complex and detailed material was covered in the chapter that I probably need to reread several more times to better grasp. I think, however, that as of now, he succeeded in convincing me that “Each and every new form of life must therefore be a masterful invention in its own right, embodying its own distinctive version of functional coherence at the very highest level” [57].

Axe ends by saying he can only see these inventions as coming from the mind of God. Axe earlier said, however, that intelligent design cannot take us to God, only to an intelligent designer. While I understand he is stating this as a personal note, more philosophical reflection about the relation between God and the intelligent designer would have been beneficial.

Chapters 11-14

In the final concluding chapters, Axe responds to a few more examples, reiterates points and facts he’s made throughout the book, makes an interesting excursion to talk about the mind-body problem and the significance of personhood, and makes several pleas for the scientific community to overcome its dogma and stop discrimination towards/total refusal to acknowledge intelligent design proponents. A lot of good material is contained within these chapters, but since we’ve already covered the argument itself, and since this review is already overwhelmingly long, I thought I’d just skim the rest.

Concluding Thoughts

As the first book I’ve read on intelligent design and evolution, Douglas Axe’s Undeniable was interesting, engaging, thought provoking, and well worth the read. Axe is at his best when he is weaving personal narrative in out of the presentation of facts in order to make them relevant and provide a context; when he uses the results of actual scientific experiments he conducted or is familiar with to support his arguments; and when he uses insightful thought experiments to bring the science home and support his conception of “common science.” His weak points are in his tendency to be overly simplistic, to overgeneralize, and to be at times too vague and ambiguous. While his occasional philosophical/existential rumination were certainly interesting and well received, they often lacked the depth and clarity needed to fully enhance the book overall.

I also felt that there was not a sufficient interaction with the literature of opposing viewpoints. While it was there, I just felt that there wasn’t enough of it to fully satisfy my questioning. Like he said many times, Darwinian evolution is the overwhelmingly dominant position with a vast ocean of supporting material. I would have appreciated more involvement of this material. For example, what about geology and the fossil record, or other contributing lines of evidence often used in support of evolution? While I understand that the book’s main focus was on molecular biology, if a chapter can be used to sidetrack to the mind-body problem, surely one more chapter could have been included to discuss these parallel issues. I also would have appreciated more about DNA in general, which seems to be a pretty central issue in intelligent design work.

Also, Axe never really mentions what his positive view of origin of life/species actually is. The book takes a negative approach, arguing against evolution. But we never get Axe’s actual positive views. I very much doubt he’s a young earth creationist, but is he an old earth creationist? A creationist at all? It would have been interesting to see.

In the end, this book acted as a great introduction to the debate; but ultimately it raised a lot of questions for me that it wasn’t able to sufficiently answer. It did not fully convince me one way or another, but it did open my eyes to a lot of ideas I would not otherwise have thought of, and stimulated within me an interest for further study. At the very least it succeeded in raising within me doubts about the adequacy of the evolutionary paradigm, which I will have to look into/think about further.

All in all, I very much recommend this book to any one with the slightest interest in the topic. It is easy and accessible and even exciting to read. I’m looking forward to following the debate further from here.

 

 

Notes

[1]. “Douglas Axe, Contributing Writer – Center for Science and Culture.” Discovery Institute. Discovery Institute. Web. 31 Jul. 2016.

[2]. Axe, Douglas. Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. Print.

[3]. Ibid., page 3.

[4]. Ibid., 4.

[5]. Ibid., 5.

[6]. Ibid., 6.

[7]. Ibid., 7.

[8]. Ibid., 8.

[9]. Ibid., 14-15.

[10]. Ibid., 15.

[11]. Ibid., 16

[12]. Ibid., 17.

[13]. Ibid., 20.

[14]. Ibid., 21.

[15]. Ibid., 21.

[16]. Ibid., 23.

[17]. Ibid., 26.

[18]. Ibid., 27.

[19]. Ibid., 30.

[20]. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (London: Burnett Books, 1985). Quoted in:  Axe, Douglas. Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. Print, 31.

[21]. Axe, Douglas. Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. Print, 38.

[22]. Ibid., 48.

[23]. Ibid., 48.

[24]. Ibid., 54.

[25]. Ibid., 57.

[26]. Ibid., 58.

[27]. Ibid., 60.

[28]. Ibid., 64.

[29]. Ibid., 66.

[30]. Ibid., 66.

[31]. Ibid., 67.

[32]. Ibid., 68.

[33]. Ibid., 68.

[34]. Ibid., 69.

[35]. Ibid., 81.

[36]. Ibid., 81.

[37]. Ibid., 84.

[38]. Ibid., 85.

[39]. Ibid., 92.

[40]. Ibid., 96.

[41]. Ibid., 96-97.

[42]. Ibid., 100-102.

[43]. Ibid., 116.

[44]. Ibid., 122.

[45]. Ibid., 125.

[46]. Ibid., 131.

[47]. Ibid., 133.

[48]. Ibid, 142-143.

[49]. Ibid., 144.

[50]. Ibid., 144.

[51]. Ibid., 153.

[52]. Ibid., 166.

[53]. Ibid., 176.

[54]. Ibid., 178.

[55]. Ibid., 181.

[56]. Ibid., 183-184.

[57]. Ibid., 184.

 

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2 thoughts on “In Depth Review of “Undeniable” By Molecular Biologist Douglas Axe

  1. Thank you for the well written review. I have not read the book, however I am familiar with Axe’s work and I find it persuasive for the following reason:
    Functional and folding proteins are extremely rare in protein sequence space meaning a random search would be improbable to find a functional proteins. There are de novo proteins in most organism which are claimed to have come from non protein coding sequences of DNA. However this is not probable because the protein sequence space is too large and filled with non-functional and non folding proteins.

    Liked by 1 person

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